Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Lessons from the allegations against Governor Cuomo and Mr. Meshi-Zahav

Many of us are following the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Governor Cuomo and we are proffering opinions about whether or not he should resign.  Meanwhile, across the ocean, another prominent figure, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder of the ZAKA emergency services organization in Israel, has been accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse.  ZAKA is a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad.  Both individuals who have been accused are very powerful and it is alleged that they used their power to silence victims until now.  Certainly, it is prudent to hold off on making definitive judgments in both instances until the underlying investigations have been completed.

When individuals engage in abusive behavior like the allegations against Governor Cuomo and Mr. Meshi-Zahav, we can point to the individuals as being bad people and/or we also can point to the situation of power that contributed to a feeling that one could get away with unlawful behavior and not get caught.  I hope that these stories not only open our eyes to the true character of these individuals if these allegations prove to be true, but I hope they open our eyes to the realization that anyone can perhaps engage in bad behavior if safeguards aren’t put in place in any organization.  If it turns out to be true that in both instances bad behavior went on for a long time but people were too afraid to report it, then that is a problem with the system.  And I think that we as a society and as a community need to start thinking long and hard about the organizations to which we belong and whether there are enough safeguards in place in these organizations.  We need safeguards to protect abuse of power and we also need safeguards to ensure financial integrity, because unfortunately, we have seen many stories of financial impropriety in Jewish non-profit organizations.

What does this all look like?  I am a shul Rabbi and I know that in many shuls, there is a desire for kavod haRav, to show respect for the Rabbi.  Placing safeguards to reduce the chances of inappropriate behavior may seem to imply that the community does not trust or respect the Rabbi.  As an example, very often a Rabbi needs to meet a woman or a child alone because the matter discussed is a very sensitive one.  While this is sometimes necessary, I believe that if at all possible these meetings should be held with others in the nearby vicinity.  At a minimum, knowing that someone else could enter or is nearby lessens the possibility or even the appearance of impropriety.  (Observing the halachot of yichud in many situations can accomplish this goal.)  What about the Rabbi’s charity fund?  Is there any accountability?  I personally make an annual charity report to my Board of Directors without mentioning the names of specific individuals.  I provide the report to give the Board a sense of how I am allocating the charitable funds that I collect.  I also recommended another practice that was implemented that we should have two signatures on every charity check — one is mine and one is someone else’s.  It is true that doing this compromises confidentiality as one person other than me now knows who receives charity from my charity fund, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to have the authority to sign checks of public funds without any accountability.  It’s not about trusting or not trusting me, but it’s about creating a policy to ensure that all non-profits create appropriate safeguards to minimize the chances of bad behavior.

Think about it this way.  Our community feels very strongly about ensuring that every couple signs a prenup.  Does that mean that we suspect that every man who signs a prenup would withhold a get from his wife?  Obviously not.  So why do want every couple to sign it?  Because there are a few men in our broader community who might withhold a get from their wives and we want to protect women from those few men.  The safest way to do this is to have everyone sign the prenup.  It’s not a sign of disrespect to any husband to sign it.  Similarly, it’s not a sign of a lack of kavod haRav to ensure that safeguards are put in place so that the Rabbi is not in a situation in which he is alone with a woman or child and that he is not in a situation when he can make decisions about significant amounts of money without any accountability.  It’s about putting a system in every shul and in every non-profit organization to ensure that in a few situations across the country where the temptation to engage in bad behavior is there, the community and its members are protected.  We all deserve no less.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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